In the next few weeks, Facebook will be rolling out significant privacy changes to the site that will make it easier to share information with people outside your immediate network — making the site more public in nature, like Twitter.
In addition, Facebook's new changes will allow you to decide who you share information with on a post-by-post basis, alleviating the need to tamper with the site's privacy controls as frequently.
Here's what to expect from the new settings (in detail), and how they differ from the current system.
What Facebook Privacy Looks Like Now
Under the current privacy settings, you must visit the privacy console on Facebook. (And if you haven't done so yet, we have a detailed, step-by-step guide on how to set your Facebook settings properly). In general, the privacy tools let you select who is allowed to view certain pieces of your Facebook content, including wall posts, pictures and links (among others).
The options include "everyone" on Facebook, "your friends," "friends of friends," or "custom." The latter feature allows you to control privacy in the most granular fashion. You could say you want to share pictures, for instance, with everyone except certain friends, or groups of friends, that you select.
In order to select a group of friends that you'd like to exclude, you must first create a Friend List. In our tips for sorting through the noise on Facebook, we show you how to create a Friend List.
While Facebook and much of the media covering the company has deemed these privacy settings "complex," I've never found them to be terribly difficult to use.
But the current settings do have one notable drawback: They force you to make blanket decisions about what types of content you share with with certain friends, rather than doing it judiciously on a case-by-case basis as you post.
For instance, let's say you arrive at the conclusion that you do not want to share pictures with a Friend List comprised of your co-workers because, in general, the photos you upload to Facebook are personal in nature. Under the current settings, you would click the "custom" option to exclude them.
But maybe, on occasion, you want to share a slideshow with them (say, for example, after your trip to a conference). In order to share it, you would have to revisit the privacy page to give them access to your pictures. Once you feel they've had a chance to see the album in question, you would have to revisit the privacy settings page again to block access to your future pictures. It makes for quite a process.
The New Privacy Settings
During the course of the next few weeks, Facebook will roll out new privacy settings to users gradually. According a recent press conference, the company will start with 40,000 users in the United States, before expanding to 80,000 internationally. After those two stages, and depending on how the work proceeds, the rest of the user base will receive the new settings gradually.
According to Facebook, the new settings will "simplify" privacy by offering users a transition tool to select who they would like to share their information with on the site. Users can be "open," which allows them to share publicly, something the company thinks many bloggers, media and celebrities might utilize. On the opposite end of the spectrum, users may call themselves "limited," which means they want to share with only friends.
The compromise option is called "recommended." Facebook suggests it for the majority of users. Within the "recommended" option, you can share with everyone or a select group of friends.
After choosing a general privacy level, you will now also be able to control who sees your information on a post-by-post basis. In order to do this, Facebook will add a privacy feature to its publisher tool, which is found at the top of the Facebook homepage. When you decide to share a status message, for instance, you can choose to share it with "everyone," "friends," or "custom," the latter being a select group that you select from within your friend list.
Facebook Becomes More Like Twitter
Around Silicon Valley, it's been speculated that Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, wanted Facebook to compete more directly with Twitter after the blossoming short messaging service became the media darling in 2008 that Facebook was in 2007. The recent redesign to Facebook, which sports a homepage with real-time data streams, looks very similar to Twitter.
But even after the March 2009 facelift, the nature of Facebook largely remained intact: It's a place to share with your friends and close contacts — unlike Twitter, which is completely public and searchable via Google. The new privacy settings, with the "everyone" option added to the content publisher, essentially encourages people to use Facebook much as they do Twitter.
Personally, I'm not convinced that's a good idea, for Facebook or its users.
Like any successful technology, Facebook is beholden to legacy. Facebook has pulled ahead of MySpace due not only to its cleaner, more uniform design, but also the comfort people had in sharing with a small Facebook network that they control. While the new privacy settings will still allow for that use of the service, it's undeniable that Facebook wants to push more in the Twitter direction, including (eventually) making more of its content publicly searchable
Industry analysts say the move will be inevitable, for both business reasons and evolving attitudes towards privacy. According to Jeremiah Owyang, a senior Forrester analyst who wrote a blog post on Facebook's Awkward Adolescence, "data that is public has more opportunity to be seen by the public, thereby increasing opportunities for advertising and marketing revenues."
According to Owyang, Generation Y, a big part of Facebook's user base, "appear more open about what they want to share, at least for now."
Wth this new round of privacy tweaks, Facebook will undoubtedly receive backlash from both users and privacy advocates (as it does with every change it makes to the service.) The question, of course, is how widespread the criticism will be. In the past, the fuss about new features or changes to Facebook has captured the attention of social networking insiders and the media who follow them, rather than a critical mass of the public. But it's how the average user feels about Facebook going the "everything" route that will determine the company's future viability.